Thursday, 16 April 2009

HMS Clio and old fires

My maternal great-grandfather, Edward James Bray, was born in 1853 in North Wales. I knew him only from this photograph, taken in the backyard of Elba Cottage, Gowerton, in 1926; from family accounts of how he came to live with his middle son, Manny, in South Wales when he retired; and from the crow's nest he built as a lookout over the Great Western Railway that bordered the house, which we loved to clamber onto a quarter of a century later. He had been master of what we were always told was a "correction ship" moored near Bangor in the Menai Straits and continued to sport his captain's hat at the requisite jaunty angle in retirement. Predictably, in view of his white hair and beard, he was nicknamed Father Christmas by local children, but he may not have always been regarded with such affection by youngsters in his care, though my mother certainly adored him.

Last night for the first time I found on the internet a little more about The Clio and two photographs of the vessel - the first I've ever seen. Built in Sheerness in 1858 when my great grandfather was just a toddler, HMS Clio served as a training ship from 1877 until she was scrapped in 1920, which was probably around the time that Edward Bray retired. Although popularly known as a reformatory or prison boat for young offenders, a kind of floating Feltham of its day, officially the Clio was designated under the Industrial Schools Act of 1866 as an industrial training ship where homeless and destitute boys from North Wales, Chester and the border counties were prepared for a career at sea in the mercantile marine service. The Prosiect Menai website suggests that many were compelled to do so, however, and were in effect prisoners on the ship, that discipline was harsh and beatings and bullying rife - so much so that local parents continued to threaten the ship as punishment long after its demise. This punitive regime is hard to marry against the avuncular figure in the sepia photograph, who would have been instrumental to the ethos on board his vessel. I will research further when I get a chance to find out more about life on these reform boats.

This photo of HMS Clio is from
It was a beautiful wooden sailing ship, a Corvette or small warship with 22 guns and 200 feet long.

Today I received an email from Mark Finn whose grandfather, Cornelius Philip Finn, a distinguished chemist and amateur photographer, photographed the Clio in 1903 moored opposite Bangor pier. My great-grandfather might even have been on board at the time. The second photo shows the Clio moored in the foreground on the Anglesey side of the Straits with Bangor Pier behind. An archive of Finn's photographs are published on his commemorative website:

This image recreates where I think the mooring must have been using a Google satellite view.

There's also a snippet about the Clio on Wikipedia:
My illustration, from an oral history of the Elba steelworks, which I collated some years ago as part of a site specific series of artwork called Old Fires, exhibited at Congress House, the TUC headquarters in Central London, montages the backyard photo with one of me taken at almost the same spot, the chimneystacks of the Elba steelworks between which and the railway Elba Cottage was sandwiched, a group of anonymous foundry men and lines from T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets.

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